Washington is a company town, and the company is Politics Inc. It's a town that relies more on rhetoric, the art of persuasion, than the real art of words set to music and poetry. But the politicians, who talk to large audiences over policy issues like immigration, war, peace and tax cuts, and creative writers who explore humanity with poetic insight, have opened a debate about the future of the written word. What they decide will be important to everybody.
The hot topic at the recent booksellers convention in Washington focused on the impact of digital books, in a place -- or "venue," in the fashionable noun -- where novelist John Updike and Sen. Barack Obama were busily flacking their new books. The novelist was upset over Google's scheme to digitally scan books from five major libraries, enabling anyone to browse through or even read everything, free. He thinks it's the beginning of the end of copyright protection and the impact on reality will be more than virtual.
What particularly upset John Updike was an article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine suggesting that infringements on copyright law would so increase the author's celebrity that anything lost by books not purchased would be made up in "performance fees." He reminded his fans at an author breakfast that "the written word was supposed to speak for itself and sell itself." (There's a lawsuit already: The Association of American Publishers is suing Google for copyright violations on behalf of the five major publishers.)
Sen. Obama, who isn't actually a writer, seemed more sanguine. He posted a long excerpt from "The Audacity of Hope," his unfinished book, on his own website. The book is scheduled for publication in October, and the electronic excerpt is the news to his fans to get ready to spread the word. The word, whether spoken, written or digitized, is just another tool of the trade for the politicians, especially for someone frequently mentioned as a presidential or vice-presidential prospect for 2008.
Like it or not, the electronic scrim with digital bytes is gaining on words printed on paper. It has its advantages. Imagine if that ancient library in Alexandria could have recorded books on computers instead of on parchment. We might still be reading the ancient masterpieces destroyed by fire. (The digital word is subject to its own vulnerabilities, some still unknown, of course.) What the ultimate impact of the digitized world will be on how we think, however, poses another kind of problem. We've all learned that "In the beginning was the Word," but the impact of the word has changed mightily since early man discovered his voice.
When novelist Tom Wolfe gave the National Endowment for the Humanities' Jefferson Lecture in Washington not long ago, he suggested that the term Homo sapiens, "man reasoning," ought to be changed to Homo loquax, "man talking": "Speech gave the human beast far more than an ingenious tool. Speech was a veritable nuclear weapon. It gave the human beast the powers of reason, complex memory and long-term planning, eventually in the form of print and engineering plans."
Many more millions of years were required for the medium to become the message, for technology to change the process of thinking. John Updike, a proud Luddite among the techies, pleads with the booksellers to defend themselves against the rising tide of digital technology: "The book revolution which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets."
He's not alone. Other traditionalists in Washington want to return prominence to the word. I was recently a judge of "Poetry Out Loud," a recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. National champions from all the states recited two poems from memory, reminding us of the power of poetry in a public recitation. This is an art largely absent from the modern classroom. Jackson Hille, a senior at Columbus Alternative School in Ohio, won first prize and a $20,000 scholarship for his recitation of "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins. The poem is about loss of memory, and the young man showed that he hadn't lost his.
"Learning great poetry by heart develops the mind and the imagination," says Dana Gioia, the chairman of the endowment. John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, concurs. "Students who take their culture at the speed of the Internet may not easily find it in a measured, majestic poem that comes down to us from the past," he says. "But a great poem has much to tell if we can find a way to listen." Finding a way to listen is the challenge for our time.